Museums have their work cut out

Poll finds funding cuts have led to a reduction in public access and a rise in the use of volunteers
Profile image for Geraldine Kendall Adams
Geraldine Kendall Adams
This month, the Museums Association (MA) publishes the results of its third annual survey on how funding cuts are affecting museums across the UK. When the information provided by the 124 respondents is compared with previous years’ results, several worrying trends are emerging as a result of reduced income.

The good news is that, after the dramatic reductions of 2011, the severity of cuts has slowed down. Although 49% of respondents reported a drop in income this year, only 4% of museums had lost a quarter or more of their income, compared with 20% in 2011.

Staff cuts have also fallen: 37% of museums lost staff this past year, compared with 42% in 2012 and 51% in 2011.

The number of museums whose income has increased rose from 5% in 2011 to 18% this year, although this is still a small proportion.

There also appears to be a greater sense of optimism in the sector – 40% of respondents expect to improve their service this year, up from 13% in 2011.

The data demonstrates that museums are proving resilient and resourceful in the face of cuts. Indeed, many institutions have reported significant rises in visitor numbers over the past few months, indicating that they are managing to maintain the quality of their public offer.

But in spite of these green shoots, almost half (47%) of respondents have increased the number of volunteers. When these figures are taken in tandem with redundancies, they demonstrate a pattern of paid staff being replaced by free or cheap labour.

Voluntary decision

One local authority museum confirmed that it had “gone over to a professional volunteer model”. Others voiced concerns about the loss of professional expertise and curatorial knowledge from their institutions; a local authority museum in Scotland said it had lost its senior curator and, as a result, could no longer fulfil its role as curatorial adviser service for Accredited museums.

Of equal concern is the continuing reduction of public access. In spite of rising visitor demand, 23% of museums have reduced the number of temporary exhibitions they run, 28% have cut down on free events and 11% have been forced to reduce opening hours.

Canterbury City Council has introduced seasonal closures at museums in Canterbury, Whitstable and Herne Bay. Elsewhere, Sandwell council is to close its Public arts centre next month, as the annual £1.6m running costs are too high.

Reduced access has the most impact on disadvantaged audiences, with several museums expressing concern at how unavoidable price increases were putting off low-income visitors.

School visits down

More worrying still is the fact that 31% of museums have suffered a fall in the number of school visits in the past year. The number of children visiting a museum or gallery in England has dropped nearly 10% since 2009-10.

In some cases, education staff and services have been severely curtailed as museums divert funding away from these areas to maintain visitor numbers elsewhere. One museum had to stop school visits this year when its education officer went on maternity leave and was not replaced.

There are also growing concerns about the new National Curriculum for England, a lack of regard among policymakers for cultural education and the growing tendency across the UK towards classroom-based learning.

The impact of cuts has inevitably been worst among museums receiving a direct public subsidy. More than half of those reporting a decrease in income were local authority museums – a soft target for councils looking to save money.

But more than a quarter of respondents that had suffered a fall in income this year were independent museums.

For the first time, the MA included specific questions on income streams. The results reveal that efforts to boost fundraising and self-generated income are proving less successful than hoped.

Last year, 62% of respondents said they would be focusing on raising more money through individual giving, but just 28% reported a rise in individual giving this year, while 17% suffered a fall. One Welsh museum said donations had fallen 40% since 2012.

Last year, 69% of respondents said they were working to boost self-generated income such as retail spend and venue hire, and 42% reported an increase this year. However, more than a fifth of respondents saw their self-generated income fall in 2013. Several said staff cuts had curtailed their ability to maximise income streams.

These results throw doubt on government claims about museums’ ability to raise private income, particularly in less wealthy regions.

But this year’s survey also shows that, in spite of the challenges, there is life beyond the cuts.

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